SPECIAL | New Forest Conservation Bill: Ministry Ignores Dissent, JPC Pushes Ahead

A confidential document prepared as part of the joint parliamentary process reveals inadequate justification for the proposed amendments.

On July 20, the Union government tabled the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report assessing Bill to amend the Forest Conservation Act in the Lok Sabha. Ever since the amendment was first proposed, it has garnered stiff opposition on a host of issues like vast tracts of forestlands losing the protective cover of the Act by narrowing down the definition of what constitutes a forest, exceptions from forest clearance for linear infrastructure up to 100 kms from the country’s border, and according exemptions to various forest diversion activities. 

The Wire Science has previously documented opposition to the bill via submissions made by conservationists, tribal groups, officers of the Indian Forest Service, and environmental lawyers and activists to the JPC that was constituted to assess the proposed amendments. Rajendra Agrawal, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Meerut is the chairperson of the JPC. Overall, the JPC includes 31 other members from the BJP, Congress, Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, etc.

On July 11, the JPC officially cleared the bill without proposing a single change while individual members filed dissent notes. This is despite the environment ministry offering inadequate justifications for the amendments made during the JPC process, a confidential document accessed by Wire Science shows.  

Clause by Clause Comments o… by The Wire

Shared with the JPC in mid-June, the document lays down clause-by-clause reasonings and justifications of the ministry for bringing forth the amendment, in response to suggestions and comments gathered by the JPC. The ministry’s arguments do not hold water, experts pointed out. 

For instance, consider how the ministry claims in the document that provisions of the Act will be applicable on “revenue forest land, private forest land, and other land recorded as forest in the records” in response to concerns that many eco-sensitive areas which haven’t been recorded as forests in government records (like large sections of the Aravalli range) will no longer require forest clearance and be open for commercialisation. 

“If that’s the case, why not explicitly mention [that the Act will apply to across such lands] in the Bill? Tomorrow when a case comes up before the courts, judgements will be passed based on the Act, not the ministry’s comments during the JPC process,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and co-founder of Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE). At present, the Bill states the Act will only apply to lands that have been declared or notified as a forest under relevant laws or have been recorded as forests in the government’s records. But, Dutta added, “The Himalaya and the Brahmaputra are the Himalaya and the Brahmaputra regardless of whether they are notified as such.”

The ministry has also claimed that forest lands have been identified by expert committees at the state and Union territory level, in pursuance of the 1996 T.N. Godavarman case and that “the same have already been taken on record and hence the provision of the Act will remain applicable on such lands also”. Broadly, the case was filed in view of timber logging in Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu wherein the Supreme Court said, among other things, that ‘forest’ includes all land recorded as a forest in governmental records regardless of its ownership and also ‘deemed forests’, which are not recorded as forests but satisfy the dictionary meaning of ‘forests’ i.e. any large area with significant tree cover and undergrowth. The court also ordered state governments to identify forests as per this definition in their respective states. 

But the ministry’s stance that forests have been identified by relevant expert committees ignores the fact that some committees are yet to finalise the process of identification of forestlands in some states.

Prerna Bindra, a conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife, said, “We don’t know how many states have submitted these expert committee reports, and if so, whether they have followed the parameters set by the Supreme Court for identifying such areas. Has the [environment] ministry reviewed the process to understand whether it was scientific, exhaustive, and reflects ground realities – or not?”

Comments and suggestions discarded, govt pushes through 

Another core criticism is that the ministry is relying excessively on the rule-making powers of the executive to justify the amendments. 

In its comments, the environment ministry has repeatedly included references to “terms and conditions” that are as yet undefined to carve out exemptions from forest clearances for purposes like border infrastructure. “The ambiguity leaves room for dilutions,” said Meenakshi Kapoor, an independent researcher working on environmental policy.

The government has also included an amendment under Section 6 of the Act to say the Union government can issue directions as may be necessary for the implementation of the  Act. “There is a lot of recourse to delegated legislation which is a bad feature of any law,” said Shashank Pandey, a research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy

The ministry has also put forth unsubstantiated views in the confidential JPC document. Elaborating on its stand with respect to the need to chalk out exemptions for defence projects in border areas, the ministry said, “Defence projects which are to be completed in a time bound manner often gets delayed due to length (sic) procedures and documentations involved in the process of approval.” But where is the evidence for this? Kapoor asked. 

The ministry has claimed that the exemption will not be made available to private entities. But this assurance doesn’t go far enough to address environmental concerns. “In Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, linear infrastructure projects by the National Highways Authority of India are causing deforestation and triggering landslides,” said Manshi Asher, a researcher and activist associated with Himdhara Collective based in Himachal Pradesh.

Additionally, public submissions made to the JPC also highlight that exemptions would mean “no impact assessment or any kind of regulatory oversight on the loss of habitats and species”, particularly in the country’s northeastern states where the exemption regarding 100 kms would cover almost the entire region. Exemptions are also prone to misuse, the submissions state. Interestingly, many BJP-ruled states in the northeast like Sikkim, Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland, and also others like Himachal Pradesh have opposed the 100 kms exemption, according to the final JPC report tabled before the Lok Sabha on 20th July. 

The internal JPC document also shows that the ministry has deflected from answering why it has proposed a change to the title of the Act to Hindi – ‘Van Sanrakshan Evam Samvardhan’ – which is against linguistic federalist principles of the Constitution of India. In response to a comment sent to the JPC to this effect, the ministry went on a tangent to explain, “Dynamic changes in the policies and programmes call for more efficient management of our forest resources to increase their productivity. Besides this, to cater to the global challenges viz. carbon neutrality, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), it is necessary to increase the green cover, striking a balance between ecological stability and economic aspirations, etc. Therefore, considering the aforementioned facts, it has been proposed to assign a self-contained name to the Act.”

“A self-contained name of the Act could have been in English also,” Dutta pointed out. 

Nevertheless, the JPC has endorsed the amendment bill in its entirety. The environment ministry’s comments reflected in the final JPC report also show that its stand on the aforementioned issues has been the same even after deliberations with the JPC. A question that arises then is to what extent the JPC was a consultative process where feedback was considered and deliberated upon. 

“The JPC has only undertaken mechanical work. It has collected comments [from the public] and sent them to the ministry saying ‘answer it’… it has not independently assessed the Bill,” said Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow and Lead of the Climate & Ecosystems team at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Sinha also questioned the integrity of the parliamentary process, adding that it seemed like they were only fulfilling a formality “without application of mind”.

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.